When the central government in Beijing assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, it promised to respect the principle of “one country, two systems” and allow the economic freedom that had flourished under British control to continue.
Most Hong Kong residents, who had enjoyed great economic and political freedom under the British but no elections, assumed that meant democratic reforms sooner rather than later. But only half the legislature is elected directly, and the chief executive is effectively appointed by Beijing.
The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong may or may not lead to greater democracy and independence from the central government in Beijing. But they demonstrate the enduring attractiveness of liberty and democratic processes and aspirations that are unlikely to be bought off with mere economic prosperity.
That may be why the government in Beijing is so reluctant to grant more direct democracy in Hong Kong.
Its leaders could be worried that more democracy in Hong Kong may lead to more aspiration and unrest in the rest of a country that has seen remarkable economic growth due to remarkable growth in economic liberty but is still ruled politically by a Communist Party in no mood to give up its monopoly on political power.
William Overholt, who directs the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at the Rand Corp., said Beijing’s reluctance to grant more extensive democratic rule to Hong Kong may be due as much to inertia and ignorance as to hostility to democracy. The government of Hu Jintao has been in power for just over a year, Overholt said, and having dealt with other priorities first may not be up to speed yet on Hong Kong. Thus the regime’s response to continuing demands for more democracy in Hong Kong suggests something of a tin ear.
That clumsiness in Beijing, however, may be complicating progress (from Beijing’s perspective) on a more important issue, according to Ted Carpenter, director of defense and foreign-policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book “America’s War with China: A Collision Course with Taiwan.”
Beijing still views Taiwan as a province that must eventually be reincorporated into the mainland under governance by Beijing. However, Carpenter said, “The Taiwanese have been watching how Beijing handles Hong Kong, and most of them have not been pleased.” Being obstinate about a little more democracy in Hong Kong could harm the chances for an eventual Beijing-Taiwanese reconciliation.
It should be in Beijing’s own interest to be generous about democracy in Hong Kong. That it is not demonstrates how deeply entrenched and stubborn the still-totalitarian rulers on the mainland are.